Content warning: Sex, sexual assault, violence, war, imperialism. Sources indicated with an * are negative examples that are not cited by name, but linked for reference.
Recently, A Better Way ministries was featured by the Associated Press for an exhibit highlighting the evils of sexual abuse and assault. The clothing of sexual abuse victims from various churches was displayed. There have been many gut-wrenching projects of this nature over the years, but the range of clothing displayed at these exhibits tell us, despite what predators and enablers would have us believe, that such assaults are in no way the fault of innocent victims. Predators and rapists exploit others, including children, for their own gratification. Even children. As with many other violent acts of inhumanity, the cruelty and sheer evil of such lust is difficult to reckon with and comprehend.
The question is, what does the gospel of the Kingdom have to offer in a world filled with sexual violence? How should we, as people transformed by Jesus, understand the differences between lust and love? Critical to this, I suggest, is a deep understanding of King Jesus and His transforming love particularly in contrast with the Greco-Roman context of the New Testament. This article explores the links between lust, pornography, violence, and empire.
As this is a sensitive topic, content warnings apply. Comments, criticism, correction, and feedback are welcome, as this essay is intended to be a conversation-starter rather than a definitive and conclusive treatment of this difficult subject. Qualified advocates for survivors of sexual abuse helped review the work.
The three sections of this series are as such:
- Part 1: Lust, Love and the Doctrine of Two Kingdoms
- Part 2: The Violence of Lust and Pornography
- Part 3: Sexual Sin, Purity, and Bearing One Another’s Burdens
Why the Doctrine of Two Kingdoms Matters
The mission of the Kingdom Outpost is the communal discernment, discovery, and demonstration of Jesus’s Kingdom which began when the Son of God came to us as a man. How He chose to come defied human expectations in every way. From His birth to His death He was never even afforded the basest of human dignities – He was laid in an animal trough, hounded and displaced as a refugee, followed as a homeless, hated itinerant rabbi, and He died a death reserved only for the least-regarded under the Roman imperium. He was stripped, debased, and openly humiliated alongside criminals. At the pinnacle of the Roman world was Caesar, figurehead and symbol of victory – the divine. At the bottom, there Christ was, along with the rest of the “nobodies”. He chose to be a “nobody”.
Crucifixion as well as enslavement (i.e. the apostles calling themselves “slaves” and Christ taking the form of a slave) were not part of the “eternal” intent of the gospel – these were images, metaphors, and, well, literal roles, that Christ embodied in relation to the context into which God chose to send His Son. Neither are these metaphors fixed in the Roman world with no application to justice and violence in the world today. What would be the equivalent of slavery today, in terms of status? What would be the equivalent to the shame and violence of crucifixion? Is our Christianity defined by the “nobodyhood” of the world we are in today, or the opposite? How do we relate to the 21st century world as Christ and the apostles set us an example in relating to the Roman world?
to open their eyes and turn them from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan to God, so that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me. (Acts 26:18)
Two Kingdom theology, drawing from the entire body of Christ’s teachings in the gospels, thus imagines there to be two powers: Satan’s and God’s (Acts 26:18). But these are not just two different offices but also means and expressions of power. Christ’s power, as demonstrated from his birth to his death, is antithetical and revolutionary.
The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full. I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. (John 10:10-11)
John 10 gives the most beautiful picture of the difference between the two kings of the two kingdoms, Satan and Christ. Christ’s love is one of giving, Satan is one who steals, and does violence. Christ offers His own life that we may have life, Satan wants to destroy and kill us. Christ cherishes and values and nurtures us because He made us. I often like to call the way of Satan “empire”, because, in human history, the way that exploitative and violent empires conquered, dominated, and ruled their subjects, stripping lands of resources and enslaving people they considered “lesser”, is reflective of the darkness of Satan.
A theology of the two kingdoms grants us valuable insight into the differences between lust and love – it is not merely a political theology but a revolutionary re-framing of all of life, based on our calling to manifest Christ and Him crucified. If we think of lust as the way of empire, and love as the way of the cross, we begin to make a little headway into the facet of human life which God proclaimed from the beginning was designed according to His image and nature – human sexuality.
Do not love the world or anything in the world. If anyone loves the world, love for the Father is not in them. For everything in the world—the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life—comes not from the Father but from the world. The world and its desires pass away, but whoever does the will of God lives forever. (1 John 2:15-17)
The world and its empires thrive on a value system in which what you desire with your flesh, see with your eyes, and that which gives you pride and superiority, is there for the taking. The Apostle John does not only refer to sexual lust here, but lust in general as a consuming, egotistical desire. It is similar to John 10:11, where a thief lusts, and therefore desires to use and to abuse.
Violence and Lust under the Roman Imperium
A cursory look at the Ancient World reveals that under Greco-Roman imperial ideology, the kind of sexuality that was idealized and prevalent was centered around domination and violence. Romantic love was a concept referred to in Greek and Roman literature in connection to perversion (i.e. sexual abuse of children) and illicit affairs. Affection was linked in literature to “weakness” and “softness” (McKitrick, 2021).
It is unsurprising that in a society revolving around rank and power, sex was one expression of the control one had over another person, the penetrator over the penetrated. Walters (1997, p.41) describes the difference between power and powerlessness in Roman societies as inviolability and superiority on one hand, and “invasion of the boundaries of the body” on the other hand. “Touching, beating,” and “sexual penetration” were acts against those with lower “slave-like” statuses. Social superiors sexually exploited their inferiors as an “aggressive demonstration” of power (p.41).
“…Both in the Assyrian armies of the 8th and 7th centuries BCE and in the Roman armies of the New Testament era, the soldiers would routinely rape male prisoners from armies they had defeated in battle. This was a political statement of victory and total power over the defeated enemy (Johnson 2007: 163). These armies did not recruit only gay men. This was power rape…” (Gnuse, 2015)
Ancient armies assaulted both men and women in lands they conquered in order to debase and humiliate them. We see this today in recent and on-going conflicts – sex used as a form of wartime violence. And, there was not only a violent element to imperialist sexual acts – there was a sexual element to imperial violence as well (such as in the form of crucifixion). The lust for violence, power and sex were intertwined.
“In the Roman world, crucifixion was used to do more than just kill the victim. Crucifixions were intended to degrade and dehumanize the victim in the eyes of the wider society…For both male and female victims, crucifixion as a public spectacle with a naked victim was a form of sexual humiliation…. For both the Romans and the Jews, nakedness during execution was a sign of humiliation, vulnerability, and absolute powerlessness in which shame and dishonour were integral factors in the punishment. However, this element of Jesus’ mistreatment has been minimized in the artistic representations of the crucifixion… In addition, the widespread but mistaken assumption that sexual abuse must be motivated by some form of sexual gratification prevents many people from seeing the sexual dimension of the stripping and forced naked exposure of Jesus. It is important to stress that sexual abuse, especially when it is part of torture, is often enacted because it is a highly effective way to humiliate and punish the victim. Torture does not need to be motivated by sexual attraction or erotic desire for it to take a sexual form.” (Figuera and Tombs, 2018)(Emphasis added)
For many cultures in the ancient world, sex was no longer what it had been designed to be in Eden. It was, instead, used to express possession and ownership, as a tool for degrading the “other”. This must be horribly devastating for God to watch – after He lovingly created beauty and goodness, to watch humanity devolve into continual violence.
The Roman imperialist mindset did not differentiate between wars “abroad” and domestic Roman life. At the center of this was Caesar.
As the “father of the fatherland,” the emperor held the ultimate and absolute power of the “household” of the Roman Empire. Whether at home, at war, or in politics, one’s position on the hierarchy of manliness was determined by one’s autonomy and power over others, especially the power to penetrate, subjugate and kill. (Ripley, 2015).
Jesus’s criticism of the “rulers of the Gentiles” in Matthew 22 and the “thief” in John 10 seem to be directly comparable to Caesar’s rule. The way that Caesar expressed his dominion was seen as the epitome of manhood (the way it was in Nazi Germany and the way it is with modern politicians who both assert their masculinity and use war to further their imperial ambitions). For a Roman male to be recognized with the dignitas and status of manhood, he needed to “lord it over” not only the lesser peoples of the Roman empire, but also those within his own household. A Roman householder could violate the bodies of his male, female, and child slaves, because he owned them. It goes without saying that this is horrifying, ugly and twisted. One could almost say that while God created men and women in His image, human societies essentially have idealized a kind of manhood made in Satan’s image.
Furthermore, it is necessary to comment on the socially assumed role of women and slaves as being “penetrated” in contrast to the implicit role of men as “penetrator” (Dover 1989; Halperin 1990; Winkler 1990; Richlin 1992). Jonathan Walters adds an insightful complexity to this discussion in his fine distinction between “males” and “men,” arguing that “not all males are men, and therefore impenetrable” (1997:32). According to Walters, only vir, that is, a free Roman adult male, was deemed to be sexually impenetrable but able to penetrate. In fact, in ancient phallocentric society including the imperial Roman world, men or women could fulfil the passive role of being penetrated. However, custom and social stigma associated with passive sexuality limited who might perform the penetrating role to those who are inextricable from the phallus (Parker 1998:47). Some scholars (Winkler 1990) consider the “penetrator and the penetrated” relationship to be more or less “natural,” involving a more powerful individual exercising sexual power over a less powerful one such as the praetextatus (a pubescent male), slaves devoid of either social identity or gender, and women. This paradigm of the penetrator-penetrated, however, seemed to be intimately related to and culturally accentuated by the ancient Mediterranean gender ideology, the Roman history of slavery, and sexual violence expressed in war and rape. In these cases, women, likewise slaves, were subject to male sexual dominance which was nurtured within the broader pattern of the Roman social hierarchies.
Regardless of the gender of the penetrated, the role was considered to be feminine and this passive feminine role of being penetrated was largely taken up by females (Skinner 1997:7)… In a nutshell, in the heterosexual act of procreation, the male penetrator should desire the female, who is always of dominated and penetrable status. Also, the Roman penetrator-penetrated binary is inherently linked to the Roman history, which is decorated with cases of sexual exploitation and violence (Moses 1993:50). The extended Roman history of war provides us with many classic examples of sexual exploitation and violence such as slavery and rape. We know all too well how slaves, regardless of gender, were sexually exploited at the free disposal of slave masters in the Roman world (Joshel 2010; Harper 2011). War-rape as an act of intimidation by invaders against the conquered was an integral aspect of Roman military conflicts with its subjugated civilians, mainly women, girls, and, at times, boys (Tacitus II. IV, “the revolt of Civilis and the Batavi”). Scholars note that Greek, Persian, and Roman troops employed rape as an adjunct to warfare and committed mass rape of women as a punitive measure (Phang: 253–254, 267–268; Gaca 2011:77–85). Even though there is no exact word in Latin equivalent to the nuance of the modern English word “rape” or “sexual violence” (Deacy & Pierce 1997), the Roman literary tradition shows that the act of rape and sexual violence against slaves and women were widely covered under a variety of legal terms (Nguyen 2006:75–112).”
The imperial Roman society venerated machismo. In this social milieu, a free Roman man should be ready, willing, and able to express his dominion over others, male or female, by means of sexual penetration (Williams 1978:18). Correspondingly, it was a taboo that a free Roman man allow anyone to penetrate him in any manner whatsoever as one’s corporeal freedom was intimately tied to one’s free and superior social status (Segal 1987:137–70; Saller 1991:153; Veyne 2002:61).
When Paul proclaimed in 1 Corinthians 7:3-4 that in the sexual union of marriage, husbands and wives have exousia (power) over the body of the other, he was proclaiming something Edenic, holy and of God, and something completely counter to the way of the world in which he lived where sex was primarily an assertion of one (active, penetrating, dominant) party’s power over the (passive, penetrated, subjugated) other. This brings us to an important point about the two kingdoms: the way of empire is taking, the way of the kingdom is giving. Empire takes the bodies and dignity of others to cement its power, but Christ literally gave His body for us. Empire is putting yourself above another, while Christ led in the cruciform example by taking the form of a slave (Philippians 2:7).
The contrast between Kingdom and Empire, Christ and Belial, shines bright in the area of human sexuality. In Part 2, we will examine pornography and sexual violence in this light. When we hold these up to the litmus-test of Christ’s example of love as compared to Empire’s exercise of lust, it is clear that these are fundamentally incompatible with godly love and sexuality. However, have Christians sometimes confused the two? What can be done to change the conversation?